The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway (B)
I’ll never be as acclaimed a writer as Ernest Hemingway, I’ll never win a Nobel Prize, and even if I do get a book written and published it probably won’t be remembered after I die.
So yes, who am I to criticize Hemingway in any way? Who am I to say an established classic like this is not deserving of an unadulterated ‘A’? And just how nuts am I to give him a ‘B’? Do I not fear that he will claw his way out of the ground and hunt me down for revenge?
Fourth question: I fear it. First and second question: I’m a guy giving his opinion, that’s who.
Like The Great Gatsby I did not, could not approach Sun just as a book. Hemingway’s enduring legacy and status among American letters makes this A Classic Novel. In other words, something you are supposed to experience more than consume. But also like Gatsby, Sun’s significance comes from being one of those works that so perfectly mirrors the time and world that created it that it practically defines them. It may have a timeless quality, but it’s more a timely work.
This came through for me in the dialogue more than anything. Unlike Shakespearan English or 60’s hippie slang, the jargon of the 20’s hasn’t been carried on in the decades since via movies and TV and parodies of the time period. I could understand what was being said via context (the plot is thin, more on that in a second), but it was just so alien that it took me longer to read than it should have. And yes, the fact that I couldn’t go through this as fast as I expected was an issue. There is challenging and there is dense, and dense does not equal good. If Hemingway had written today I’m sure I would have had no trouble because we’d be speaking the same language.
That’s not Hemingway’s fault, but it does lower the book in my eyes because it affected my experience reading it.
The real problem for me was the paperthin plot and the pages and pages where stuff happens but a story doesn’t. Sure, that’s his style. I get it. But as I’ve said before, I am a narrative driven reader/viewer. I have to be drawn into a series of events leading from one place to another. It doesn’t have to be spectacle, outward action. Inner growth works, and Sun certainly sets up something like that with Jake (the narrator’s) personal troubles and his not-quite-relationship with Brett. The meandering in the first act and their coming back together in the third could have led to something, but the expected (if pedestrian) outpouring of feelings and expression of what is being kept hidden never comes.
Would the book have been better had this resolution, any resolution, taken place? It’s not so easy to say yes. Sure, it would be more conventional and I would be able to get into it easier, but that doesn’t mean it would make for a better work. I understand where Hemingway was after World War I, I understand the mood of the Lost Generation, and I absolutely understand that not everyone can lay their emotions out like movie characters do. Withholding the inner thoughts of Jake and Brett is truer and in keeping with the tone than anything else would have been, and this book would have been forgotten in time otherwise.
The truth that spawned this book is what also ensures its significance, and I’m not about to say it isn’t an important book for its power to evoke a specific mood in a specific point in time. But that doesn’t mean it works for me as a reader. Simply taking in the story via the prose, reading what Hemingway put in and piecing what he left out, I’m satisfied but not blown away. That’s my honest appraisal.